Sunday 17 December 2017

She was more real than any pop star of her generation and that's why we loved her, writes HARRIET WALKER

Thanks to Amy Winehouse female artists became credible and vocal. They controlled their own destinies

The year 2003 was a veritable musical wasteland. The Hit Parade was a blasted heath, the Top 40 a battlefield strewn with casualties of the clashes between labels and artists, between reality and the supposedly alternative wave, between new stars coming to the end of their 15 minutes and golden oldies endlessly resetting the clock on theirs.

Girls Aloud (Popstars: The Rivals), David Sneddon (Fame Academy), Gareth Gates (Pop Idol), Will Young (ditto), Tatu (two Russian fake-lesbian fake-schoolgirls who kissed every time it rained), Busted (three public schoolboys with guitars and a tween fanbase), Evanescence ("goth Christian nu-metal with a twist of melancholic Enya," according to Blender), The Darkness (who came from a glam-schlock, hyper-masculinist novelty school, nicknamed "Cock Rock").

Elton John had spent several weeks at No 1 over the summer bellowing "Are you ready for lurrrve?" ad infinitum. To tell the truth, we were ready for anything, so long as it wasn't a remix and had its own hair.

What we got was Amy Winehouse. Her debut album, Frank, was released that October, which happened to be the month I arrived at university. Long after the disco beat of freshers' week had receded, Winehouse's heartfelt lyrics about love, lust and ladyboys still resonated, both literally and metaphorically, down the corridors of our halls of residence.

Winehouse knocked Kylie Minogue and the Sugababes, both of whom were riding high in the charts at the time, into a cocked hat. And she blazed a trail for others like her.

The music landscape that Winehouse joined in 2003 was very different to the one she left behind last Saturday. Bands have come and gone, groups split, reformed and split again, some names may have endured but shelf life has shortened. That hollow list above, which cited women in pop only as by-products of audience-participation game shows or as faux-erogenous, gothic ciphers, feels as dated as their songs now sound.

The charts are full of women; there are paeans written in their honour; there are actual articles in serious music magazines about girls; they are all over MTV -- and some of them even have their clothes on.

This is Amy Winehouse's legacy: thanks to her, female artists became credible and they became vocal. And they control their destinies in a way she never managed.

"There was a big industry noise made about Amy very early on in her career, a long time before Frank came out," says celebrity writer Paul Flynn. "She was mismarketed terribly, lumped in with that Radio 2-endorsed trad jazz revival thing that was going on, which couldn't really have been further from who she was."

But Winehouse was the first to understand what the new direction for women in music could be, the first to combine the slickness of a commercial venture (she was, after all, stage-schooled and signed to Simon Fuller's 19 label, the same as the Spice Girls) with likeability and realism, unlike so many pre-teen popstrels with sponsorship deals.

Although the genre-ticks and stylings of Winehouse's early work bore hallmarks of the jazz and soul she had grown up listening to, they also worked with rhythm and beat in a modern-sounding, if retro, way.

"Amy looked further back, to the heartbroken hit factory of Detroit's Motown girl groups," says Hanna Hanra, editor of music magazine The Beat.

When the second album Back To Black came out in 2006, I had just graduated and moved to London. Once again, Winehouse was there to catalogue the rites of passage, the highs and lows -- and this time, the world loved her for being so heartsore and gobby. The album won five Grammys that year, Beyonce is the only other female artist to have won more in one night.

And on her heels came the likes of Adele and Florence Welch, even pop stars Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. Individual but iconic, emotive but empathetic, sympathetic but so obviously star quality: they channel the raw but reworked power of latter-day divas made modern for current tastes.

Earlier queens of the scene, such as Janis Joplin and Patti Smith, had gained ascendance either by imitating the ways of their male counterparts or subduing their own femininity. While Winehouse was undoubtedly a bit lairy, she was by no means a ladette; she started out just as boozy and bitchy as the rest of us, and her petite, curvy frame was all part of her look.

Not since Neneh Cherry had appeared pregnant, medallioned and encased in a gold bra on Top of the Pops telling people not to get fresh with her had there been a female star with such verve, pizzazz, strength and charisma.

Madonna was Madonna, of course, but Amy Winehouse was ours. She was a new generation and she was doing it differently -- she was a lyricist, a poet, perhaps, given the metaphysical conceits present in most of her songs, and she was the sort of performer who was born to sing rather than baying for fame.

Her sexuality wasn't a weapon, as it had been for many of her predecessors; she was just another young woman trying to figure out how not to get dumped again, and taking pot shots at footballers' wives in the meantime.

If listening to Madonna albums had been the equivalent of starring in your very own burlesque show, then listening to Winehouse was like going to the pub with a friend, listening to her romantic woes, having her advise you on yours, and then the two of you laughing and pointing at some try-hards by the bar. It was the perfect stance, a stylish version of solidarity, for young female consumers and music fans.

"She had that incredible artistic gift of being complicated yet clear," says celebrity writer Paul Flynn. "Her wordplay, the phrasing in her singing, the emotional depth she put into the work. There's a certain remove and distance in a lot of 21st-Century pop music that she dispensed with. Her singing was the diametric opposite of autotune. She hurt openly."

Winehouse was upfront; she pulled no punches. She may have been 19 when she first surfaced but her world-weary wisecracks were those of someone who had already lived it all. She was streetwise, cocksure and rude -- so rude in fact that it took me years to catch up with the actual meanings of what I was singing along to.

Even Beyonce, who had had several No 1s even before Amy Winehouse came to the fore, is now playing from the same songbook, developing the sassy, pop-infused schmaltz of Crazy in Love (which hit the top spot three months before the release of Frank) into less naive dating diatribes such as Why Don't You Love Me? and Irreplaceable.

I saw Winehouse live in 2004 at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, and was surprised by the demographic she pulled in. A mix of jazzophiles, hipsters, girly girls, femme fatales and housewives -- each group had been looking for something like her.

Amy Winehouse shaped the current music scene even as she absented herself from it. She sang for herself but an entire generation listened. And the resurgent success of both albums since her untimely death is proof that her music will see out the years that she did not.

Irish Independent

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